On mending ties!

Modi in Nepal

By Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Nepal for two days last week, the third time since he headed the Indian government in 2014. This was just about a month after New Delhi warmly received KPS Oli, the Nepali Prime Minister since February 2018. The haste shown by Modi in paying the return visit indicates his keenness in mending ties with Nepal. It is not hard to recall the ties had hit an all-time low after the economic blockade of 2015 imposed by Madhesis ‘allegedly’ at the behest of Indian government.
How far Modi will succeed in pulling Nepal back from slipping into China’s increasing sphere of influence is a matter for critical assessment. NDA government had certainly faltered in its Nepal policy since Modi had generated a great deal of friendly feelings among 30 million Nepalese in his first visit as the PM. He made it a priority to visit Nepal soon after he took over as the Prime Minister, 17 years after the visit of any head of Indian government. The pro-India euphoria gradually evaporated, more so, after the infamous, ill-thought out blockade of supplies from India.
Modi is seeking to invoke historical, cultural and religious ties between Nepal and China. That is why he made Janakpur, his first port of call in this visit. Janakpur occupies emotional space in Indians’ cultural and religious mind-sets, especially Hindus, as Sita, wife of Lord Rama was born there to a ‘righteous and dutiful’ king, Janak, or Videha as he was also known. Sita was married to Lord Rama of Ayodhya, a religio-political hotspot in India, with tremendous religious significance for Hindus. Modi said in his speech in Janakpur, “without Nepal, our religion is incomplete, our civilisational foundation remains truncated”.
He pledged a donation of 1 billion INR for development of Janakpur, and promised to expedite the Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service to complete the ‘Ramayana circuit’. It may be in order that we recall, following the Sugauli Treaty in 1816 between the Nepali rulers and the British East India Company, the northern part of ancient Mithila State including Janakpur the capital then, became part of Nepal while the Southern part went to India.
Some journalists in Nepal are attributing Modi’s ‘Janakpur first’ in this visit, to his love for the city and its history. One commentator wrote, “Never in the past, had any high-level government dignitary from India or from any other country of world ever thought of touching the holy land of Janakpur before visiting Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal”. They assume that Modi like king Janak is a karma yogi, a doer. He remains detached from normal worldly cares and anxieties, and stays devoted to his duties. Well, such encomiums are showered on visiting dignitaries by the locals for the sake of deepening bilateral ties. No wonder, Modi himself said, “India-Nepal relations are as old as the river Ganges, and Himalaya”.
From Janakpur, Modi flew to temple Muktinath to pay his divine respects, and seek blessings. This was another gesture that may sooth the frayed feelings of Nepali citizens who are predominantly Hindus. Modi obviously extended his spiritual plank in addressing the India-Nepal relations.
Following his religious sojourn, he began the delegation level meetings on deepening bilateral relations. To be sure, from the point of view of Nepal, there was a host of outstanding issues that needed to be addressed. These include: continuing trade deficit, exchange of demonitised notes in the hands of Nepalese, increasing the air-routes to Nepal from India, and attending to the flooding issues and so on. More important, Nepal was to raise the issue of many pending projects offered by India.
Surely, Modi’s visit will somewhat cool the tempers in Nepal which had sprung up due to a perception that India was interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal and had a patronising approach. In his visit last in April Oli had indicated that “misgivings and misperceptions were removed” and India-Nepal relations were back on track.
Obviously, given deep economic and trade relations between India and Nepal, Oli rushed to India since he became the Prime Minister for the second time. But, did he really mean it? Does he want to retain the “special ties” between the two countries? His actions and pronouncements back home point otherwise.
Oli vowed to reduce their dependence on India by sending overtures to China, their other neighbour, that is wanting to curtail India’s influence on Nepal and other South Asian countries. By opening road and water links with China, Nepal is trying to end the Indian monopoly over Nepal’s supply system. Kathmandu has signed trade and transit agreements with Beijing to establish such connectivity. It is not clear how these links will operate on the tough terrain between Nepal and China. A peace and friendship treaty between China and Nepal is under discussion at the behest of the former; so is a ‘Free Trade Agreement’.
It is crystal clear that Oli is wanting to do a ‘balancing act’ between China and India in order to draw maximum concession from New Delhi or both. It is also known that Oli drew much of his electoral support with his anti-India rhetoric and posturing. Indian observers of Nepali politics contend that anti-India feeling was brewing in Nepal even before the blockade, since it began to move away from monarchy to a republic with a written Constitution.
The RSS and the conservative elements in BJP believe that a Hindu kingdom was more friendly towards India than the Left radicals under a modern Constitution. It was easier for India to manage the king in the context of SAARC etc. Be that as it may, the NDA has muddled a traditionally friendly neighbour with its inconsistent and segmented approach, siding with the Madhesis in their internal fight for rights etc. It must repair the fault lines in dealing with Nepal.
Having said that, Nepal is treading a risky path of “running with the hare and hunting with the hound”. It is playing off India against China and vice versa. India, in the past did the mistake of adopting non-alignment and ended up being alone. Nepal is replicating the mistake, albeit, with double alignment. It has ‘kith and kin’ relations with India, and only a transactional one with China. It has to recognise a friend, and reckon with a business partner, lest it should “fall between two stools”. — INFA